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All Those Crippling Nihilist Moments

Andrew wrote yesterday that it was the “eve of the crippling of Obama’s presidency,” and today he complains of the victory of nihilism. It will annoy Obama’s foes to no end, but he is not going to be crippled by this. No President in the last thirty years has enjoyed Senate majorities as large as the one the Democrats will still have after tonight. After the anti-GOP cycles of ’74 and ’76 the Democrats had a majority of 61 under Carter, and this was reduced to 58 after the midterms. It still seems to me that those elections are the best parallels to what we have seen since 2006.

Neither has “nihilism” triumphed. It is a strange thing to say that Obama’s presidency has been crippled by a “nihilist” victory, since it is clear from Andrew’s own choice of words that he thinks the “nihilists” have nothing of value to contribute to political debate. If they are “nihilists,” how could they possibly cripple Obama? Nihilist is a word that has been thrown around a lot in the last couple of years, and it seems that people use this word whenever voters or their representatives do something that displeases or opposes political establishments. Populist was the preferred word for demonizing anti-establishment leaders in the 1990s, but now the populist label has acquired a little bit of respectability and greater currency after the last few elections. Nihilist seems to have become one of the replacements to serve the same function. When the House correctly rejected the TARP the first time as the egregious power grab by the executive branch and incredible swindle of the public that it was, David Brooks railed against the “nihilists” who had voted with the majority. Brooks trotted out the label again in early 2009, and I wrote this in response:

It can’t always be “nihilism” to oppose government power-grabs and enormous amounts of spending and borrowing, but then the charge of nihilism is an odd one to make in any case. If the problems Republicans have are inflexibility and reflexive adherence to an ideological tenet, the problem is not that they believe in nothing or wish to lay waste to things, which is what nihilism would actually mean, but that they have invested far, far too much in one position. They believe in something (getting rid of earmarks!), and the only thing they want to destroy is earmarks, but this is not nihilism. It is not nihilistic to be obsessed with earmarks and “wasteful spending,” just incredibly stupid and futile.

One could substitute preoccupation with tax cuts in this paragraph, and the point would remain valid. Nihilists wish to tear down existing structures. Turgenev’s literary archetype of a nihilist, Bazarov, had no political vision of any kind. The goal of a nihilist is destruction. Far from trying to tear down existing structures, the GOP has pursed stand-patism and a defense of whatever the status quo happened to be a year ago. There are many things to criticize here, not least of which is the party’s complete inability and unwillingness to acknowledge and recognize their grave errors when they were in power, but the GOP’s “nihilism” is not one of them.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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